Anonymous Career Advice

How to handle back to back meetings and stressed staff around you

This week, the anonymous career advice form received two questions that were very similar. Being in back to back meetings are taking up all of the work time and two frustrated individuals are facing an uphill battle to actually get their work done and in one case cannot even grab a lunch break. 

Dear focus, I’m finding work impossible, Constantly in back to back meetings, I am struggling to even find time to eat let and sometimes struggle to find time for a toilet break. I am never getting any of my work done and the icing on the cake; everyone is stressed and feel there is no way out.

This is something that really is unacceptable and I feel for you.
I have been there personally in a previous role and it is something that took  me a few weeks to tackle and get out of the other side. 

A trigger warning; this is going to take you 30 extra minutes to review and run through, I suggest doing this when you are fresh and can concentrate like it is deep work. 

Exercise 1: Take to list out the meetings and which ones to: 

  • Keep – essential and have to be a part and running ok 
  • Kill – unuseful, no one is benefitting and is wasting your time 
  • Cure – somewhat useful, can be optimised, review and optimise the parts that can be changed, reduce down the amount of chatter and focus around more actionable agendas 
Business Performance

Why No Meeting Days Need Transition Plans

I think it is safe to say, meetings have always considered an essential part of the working day.

Meetings have however become one of the main factors of the broken world of work.

I believe I can safely speak on behalf of almost all of us, lockdowns (and quarantines) have made back to back meetings feel like it is the only way we can do our daily work.

This is definitely dangerous and a broken way of thinking and a broken way of work.

Deliberate With Meetings

In most organisations, they have not defined when, why or how to host or have meetings. This is causing stress, burnout and meeting fatigue.

If you have worked in a fully remote or fully distributed team, you know meetings are essential parts of projects and campaigns but will often slow down important work. So deliberate reasons for meetings, brainstorms and quick asynchronous standup have been vital and calculated to get the most out of “meetings”. If you have ever spoken to someone who has worked fully remotely, they will tell you deep work is essential and arranging your days around meetings slow’s the flow and projects right down.

Meetings = Burnout?

At the end of 2020, Google introduced no meetings week, as I wrote then, this move would have from the outside seemed a good idea to prevent burnout but internally the anxiety levels would have increased and many businesses are not set up to align, agree on progress or make important decisions on email threads and instant messengers like Teams or Slack.

Many organisations I have spoken to over the last nine months have suggested meetings in person moved online and onto video as default, with the same structure of meetings, the same decision process is happening, now just more slowly or with more but shorter meetings to gain alignment.

More meetings do not help, they take more time, add more opinions and add more complexity to your workday, this is actually causing more fatigue and potential burnout.

Back To Backs – The Exec Problem

Even the most senior and well-supported company executives burnout from back to back meetings, if you speak to anyone at a mid to large-sized business in a leadership role, their calendars are back to back to back. For some this is the way they have learnt, others this is the way they are expected to lead. For most this is a choice and ripples through businesses.

This back to back theme became the norm in the early 2000’s and has plagued organisations since, this is where a HiPPO should lead and ensure the company knows this is bad practise and does not enable productive or positive working environments.

A Dive Into Meeting Stats

  • With the move to forced working from home, we now average 6.9 meetings per day
  • That’s a 13.5% increase YoY
  • Meeting lengths
    • 31% of meetings were 15 minute meetings long
    • 36% of meetings were 30-minute
    • 20% of meetings ran for 60 minutes
  • Studies found that staff attend on average 62 meetings per month, where ~50% of the meetings were considered a complete waste of time.
  • 50% of meeting agendas are recycled – this can help and hinder

These many meetings mean we do not have time to recover from meetings and digest what was said and the actions that need to happen. Frustrations with meetings, the time it takes away from you and the feelings it creates are known as Meeting Recovery Syndrome. MRS is an important component of your workday and is one of the most misunderstood parts of the day.

Running late on video calls on the surface seems to waste more people’s time, with six or more people staring at pixels and inspecting the backgrounds of their colleagues, a meeting overrunning also brings more stress and anxiety, this zaps more energy from meeting attendee’s meaning MRS is heightened and tension builds from meeting to meeting. MRS is taken from one meeting to the next.

Unfortunately just not having meetings or reducing down meetings with bad habits, is not going to positively change how your company or agency operates, it will reduce some stress but will apply more pressure on the meetings that take place and will see more internal communications that has not been planned for.

Meeting Design

Meeting design is a whole category business should dedicate an owner to, research, adopt and introduce company-wide.
Learning how to craft meetings, being thoughtful of those who need to attend, why they should attend, what time they should attend, the work required pre-meeting, the reading materials supplied, the crafted vs recycled agenda are all essential parts of making one meeting a success.

Fewer Meetings Vs No Meetings

Trying to turn this off and reduce meetings down when we are having more meetings on the surface seems a good idea but second-order thinking will allow you understand this is a bandaid approach that many businesses will struggle to help their teams adopt.

No meetings will help reduce a day to two of stress providing it is planned for and the campaign, project or product leads understand how they are critical parts of reducing stress and organising around previous poor workflows could and should work.

Are No Meeting Days Possible?

No meeting days is not a new concept, the concept has been around for a number of years and has enabled a number of people to get their head down and get their work done.

Company-wide no meeting days has been an answer many businesses have tried but has failed for mass adoption or success, this is typically down to organisations who rely on meetings to make decisions, relying on meetings to keep management up to date with what is happening and misalignment on work being mixed up with meetings.

No meeting days will be possible if you build-up muscle memory up towards no meetings, you have to remove the friction points (for example decision making only happening meetings) and then enable them to happen over email, project tools or instant messenger. Having a company-wide agreement that is followed by the most junior to most senior is essential.

No Meeting Days Plan For Success

Meeting free days actually take a number of months to transition to, there are many reasons but the most important to note are

  • To build a company-wide agreement of what a meeting is and is not
  • To build confidence no meeting days can work
  • To enable teams to move away from meetings, stand-ups and in-person and hybrid status updates
  • To replace the reliance on meetings to make decisions
  • To replace decision making in meetings with an agree process, whether this is on email, on chat, on a dedicated document or on a project management tool.
    • A decision document will be an important step to increase awareness of decisions and why these take place.
  • To build a new way of asynchronous communications.

The way the world is changing and the way many have already embraced working remotely and from home, we will see meetings play an essential part of the hybrid office, this will however require work, investment into people, tools and processes and agreed to company-wide principles to follow these, even when projects go off schedule, things hit the fan or the HiPPO demands a meeting.

The ways to win:

  • Reducing down meetings is being more deliberate with what a meeting is, is not and what you have to achieve from the meeting
  • It is knowing what the outcome of the meetings are and then giving the company and teams a chance to create more deliberate and considered communications asynchronously.
  • This methodology reduces the requirements for meetings, you build up muscle for making decisions away from meetings and ensure the company know when they are deliberate, they win vs requiring a meeting to make progress.
  • Remove the busy badge of honour and replace it with deliberate communications and thoughtful work wins and knowing that they can trust each other and no meetings days to win.

Recommended Reading

Stats Source – Otter

Friday Focus

Friday Focus – 15th January

In today’s five for Friday, we share five simple tips to improve the next couple of weeks ahead.

  1. 30:30 Rule – 30 minutes at the start of your day to review or create your to-do list of the most important actions.
    30 minutes at the end of the day to review your list, write down 3 achievements and write down the important information you need to address the following business day. Removing those problems from your mind onto paper or centralise system allows you to reduce the anxiety or stress around it.
  2. Team Or Department AMA Session – At the end of each plan out an AMA session where you, your team or department offer an AMA session for the rest of the business can ask work-related questions.
    This is an excellent read to help you prepare or create company-wide AMA.
  3. Ask your team for ideas – Many teams are looking for a chance to show off their ideas and their solutions to the problems they see. Book a time slot in where you and the team or department present their ideas and score these ideas.
    Organise with a simple three-box template:
    1. The problem you are solving? (How much is this costing us?)
    2. Why Now?
    3. The 5 things needed to make this successful?
    This will help with team morale and encourage ideas and collaboration. You do not have to commit to any ideas but there will likely be a couple of brilliant ideas.
  4. Develop out your Department Joker – as we have called out in the department joker, they are a brilliant member of your company and bring teams closer together.
    Book in a time where you can arrange to develop your colleague and help them to take on more responsibility. This might seem extra work but these colleagues are often overlooked and turn out to be brilliant mentors or coaches.
  5. 30:to:25 – Meetings are the bane of all professionals currently. Reduce your meeting defaults down from 30 to 25 minutes, reduce an hour meeting to 50 minutes. Timeboxing is the secret to getting through meetings with good agenda’s. If you are in back to backs typically this will free up at least 25 minutes per day.
    Read optimise your meetings for extra help and context.

Friday Focus

Friday Focus – Friday 4th December

On today’s five things to focus on this Friday.

We look ahead to 2021, we share five helpful resources that will help you develop your company and empower your team around you with rich reading materials.

The fear of innovation and why it’s so important not to fear change and evolution, especially when it going to open up new markets for you.

How to develop working relationships and be authentic at work with colleagues and management

The five roles you should be looking at to employee or internally to reshuffle your pack

Why Google are wrong in no meetings = burnout prevention

Optimising your meetings will help your business develop and mature quicker than more hires

Have a great weekend and I trust these resources help you in the week ahead.

Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 20 – Optimise Your Meetings

Optimise Your Meetings


Dear Leaders,

Leaders, Something I am a stickler for is meetings, specifically making meetings work.  

Meetings and meeting culture are killing businesses.
I repeat they are killing businesses inside out!

There are many businesses that allow bad meetings to impact their culture and company performance and do nothing to change this.  There is something called MRS, it stands for: Meeting Recovery Syndrome.
And yes, it is actually a thing and it is proven it takes time to cool down post-meeting.

I HATE bad meetings, I am famous for saying how expensive is this meeting, to ensure meetings have actionable and directing agendas, to infamously stopping bad meetings when we are getting nowhere.

Something else that grates me, people voicing their opinions to be heard or agreeing and explaining their why for agreeing without a prompt is a waste of time, money and collective effort.

Coaching and aiding bad meetings hosts is an essential part of being a good leader in my honest opinion. It is not that I was conditioned in finance, meetings = money, money has to = progress and sales. We are never taught that meetings are the biggest time drain and one of the highest costs within businesses.

Are we conditioned from our early careers?
At the start of your career, you take every meeting because you want to be involved and want to be seen and then eventually heard by the room asking for your opinion.
By the middle of your career, you are conditioned into thinking meetings = progress, truth is they rarely do.

Optimise Your Time
We are never taught to improve or optimise meetings, this is a huge failure for company culture and impacts company performance daily. Some managers suggest they are in 30 hours of meetings per week, that is 75% of your working week in meetings, away from doing work or positively influencing the business.

A grumpy HiPPO in a meeting leads to hours of anxiety, panic and MRS. Be proactive and focus on making meetings better! So, here are 3 meeting tips for you to apply to your meetings or across your business:

Change Default Times: Why are meeting defaults 1 hour? Outlook and then Gmail! Change the default times.
Time Change 1: As there is no timing allowance between meetings. Change the meeting start time from 10.00 to 10.10.
Time Change 2: Change defaults from 30 minutes to 25 minutes and 60 minutes to 50 minutes.
Why? Shorter meetings get more decisions made and more quickly. As a bonus, you are respecting people’s time and energy for the day.  

Silent Brainstorms: It levels the playing field and produces better brainstorms. They are 2x more effective. Why? Provides access to the floor for everyone. People bring their best selves and stop playing up for the boss and agreeing with their idea or decision. Crazy eights work particularly well with this methodology.

Silent Start – Silent Ending: Start meetings with memos so everyone can start reading the same information. As a realist, you are never going to get all attendees to read the information before the meeting. With the hybrid office taking over, creating a meeting memo’s should be a tool in your arsenal.
If the meeting is for updates have an open document where people update together at the same time.

Meeting feedback comes in many ways but if you want actionable feedback, create a meeting feedback section on your meeting notes and ask for feedback. Great for introverts, ambiverts and introverts and creates important feedback loops.  

+ Bonus:
I love an agenda, it sets up attendees for what to expect, it generally also only applies for the meeting organiser, not the attendees. Always have a well-thought agenda with a question that has to be answered within that meeting, question yourself on why you invited these people to the meeting, was it to inform them or was it for their input.
Always have someone who “chairs the meeting” their responsibilities including take the notes, sticking to answering the question we suggested had to be answered and send around the meeting minutes with who is responsible to deliver the agreed and required actions. Yes, this sounds idealistic but without these steps, almost all meetings fail.

Remember: No agenda should mean no meeting. Set the example from the top and educate those on why and how. This week focus on improving your business by improving meetings. There are likely thousands of £/$’s wasted every hour by having rubbish meetings.

Thanks and have a good week, Danny

PS Don’t miss the what company culture is post, it’s a must-read for anyone in leadership, management or HR